When hiring has unintended consequences

Helping companies understand and reframe the hiring process

The intended consequence of hiring is filling a vacant position. But are there unintended consequences? Lisa Cohen’s research says yes―from redefining roles and relationships, to changing how the organization manages and promotes learning, better practices and strategic management. She and her team hope the findings from their research will help Canadian companies avoid unnecessary pitfalls, especially in the post-COVID-19 labour market.

What happens when companies hire?

An associate professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Cohen specializes in organizational behaviour, with a focus on the dynamics of work.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of hiring processes,” says Cohen. “I always had a sense there was more going on than just the HR transaction: relationship-building and networking, exposure to how different people organize things. I was curious, too, about the ecosystems that get created.”

With the help of a SSHRC Insight Grant, Cohen conducted more than 200 interviews with business founders, executives, hiring managers, successful candidates and job seekers. Half of her interviews were done over three years at a United Kingdom financial technologies start-up whose CEO was a former student of hers. By focusing closely on one company, Cohen was able to gain a unique longer-term perspective on the impacts hiring can have across an organization over time.

Evolving job descriptions

Cohen says one of the biggest unintended consequences is that the job may be redesigned during the hiring process. This occurs when a company posts to fill a position and, while assessing the candidates, discovers it needs a different set of skills―or an entirely different role.

For example, says Cohen, “One firm posted for a personal assistant, but realized as they started to evaluate candidates that what it actually wanted was an office manager. In cases like that, once the right role is identified, things usually stabilize.”

It may also be that a company knows it needs someone, but isn’t sure just whom. According to Cohen, this leads to further unintended consequences, because the job continues to evolve even after the candidate is hired.

Unforeseen outside factors

Unintended consequences can also be caused by what Cohen calls “exogenous events”―external forces that change the process or its outcomes.

“COVID-19 is an exogenous event,” she explains. “It has altered how companies hire, and created unexpected HR needs, such as recruiting for people who work well remotely.”

Cohen learned early during the COVID-19 lockdown that she’d been awarded a second SSHRC Insight Grant. The pandemic shifted her thinking about the focus of that project―from how specific tasks move across different jobs or groups over time (for example, the responsibility for data entry going from analysts to interns to an outsourced contractor) to how COVID-19 is affecting hiring and other employment processes in start-ups.

Shifting expectations of the hiring process

Beyond helping companies protect themselves from missteps, Cohen hopes her research will normalize the real-life experience of hiring.

“Companies should know it’s okay to go to market when they don’t know exactly what they want,” she says. “A big part of hiring is designing a job. And there really are opportunities to create a rich ecosystem for the business through the hiring process, if you’re open and alert to them.”

Read articles by Lisa Cohen at The Conversation or visit her McGill University profile page.